Although there is no clear distinction between classics and contemporary classics, a general rule of thumb is to differentiate between them based on whether they were published before or after WWII.
A slightly more in-depth analysis could reveal a shift in the style of stories that came about in the mid and later half of the 20th century. Contemporary classics often carry themes that are reminiscent of the emotions people felt during the Second World War. Still, there are also stories of hope, humor, and freedom, with a sense of sexual independence that, while present, was more concealed in classic novels of decades past.
However, very much like the opening lines of classics, there exists a fascinating diversity in how authors from this period decided to start their soon to be “modern classics.”
Consider I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and the opening line of the book "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." It's both quirky and telling, traits that continue throughout the rest of the book. In contrast, Lolita's opening lines are intimate, bursting with sexual tension and seduction. While the lines titillate the reader, the controversial aspect of the oncoming romance remains a mystery at this stage.
Interestingly, there are several similarities in these first lines of books, like that of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Catch-22, A Wrinkle in Time, The Bell Jar, and Fahrenheit 451, all of which start with "It was …"
Then again, the brilliance of the authors who wrote these contemporary classics also lies in their mischievous play on words. Madeleine L'Engle, for example, unabashedly begins A Wrinkle in Time with what is considered the most cliched phrase ever, "It was a dark and stormy night."
Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five is cheeky, daring the reader to either believe in his story or not. Finally, there is Nineteen Eighty-Four, where pages can be written about George Orwell's famous first line. It instantly raises questions about the significance of the clocks striking thirteen or whether "a bright cold day in April" was a hint that all is not normal in his story.
One of the greatest joys of reading is that it allows book lovers to imagine a world that the writer has created for them, in their way. The same holds true for first lines of novels, which can either tell everything about the story that follows, or absolutely nothing at all.
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
“’Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind.”
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
“It was love at first sight.”
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
“’What's it going to be then, eh?’ That was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.”
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.”
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
“All of this happened, more or less.”
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
“High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.”
“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
“Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.”
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
"They shoot the white girl first.”